Friends and Family
I just found my journal stuffed under my bed. I haven’t touched it in so long, almost a year now, that I had to brush a layer of dust off. What would I write in here? I eat, I sleep, I work, I train. I go through the motions. I try to act like everything’s okay, but it’s not okay. It’s never going to be okay again.
It’s funny. I read through the things that happened last year, and it’s like it happened to someone else. Someone … younger. As if one year can make such a huge difference. But it can. I didn’t realize. It can.
I started this whole journaling thing because it seemed to help. It was a way to get some of the swirling maddening thoughts and feelings trapped in my head out of my system. Catherine keeps telling me I should talk to someone. I can’t. I just can’t. But maybe I can write.
I left off right after Smoking Mirror’s goons kidnapped me. I’ll just go from there. Things were quiet for a while after that.
It was clear as glass by then that I really was the target of Austin’s new enemy. Smoking Mirror had some kind of personal grudge against me. Not my city. Me. My city was just collateral damage. I didn't know why, though. Not then.
After the kidnapping, Detective Long questioned the three prisoners with the skull tattoos. They refused to say anything when he interrogated them, absolutely nothing, not one word, and one by one, they committed suicide as soon as they saw an opportunity. The lady who used too much lipstick was the last to die. Long had her in a padded cell in a straight jacket, and she still managed to strangle herself with her own braided hair.
Long told me to take some leave from work so the police could protect me more effectively, but I refused.
"No way I'm going to risk losing my job again," I told him.
He rubbed his hand through his close-cropped brown hair. "Look, we're up against some kind of fanatic religious cult here. They're not going to just go away. If you don't cooperate, I might have to put you in protective custody."
"I'm a Protector, now. You can't just treat me like a helpless civilian," I told him. I even showed him the handy dandy badge Liberty gave me.
He sighed. "Technically, maybe. But you've got no powers now, and this "Smoking Mirror" knows it."
I crossed my arms. I just wasn't going to do it. I'd lost one job I loved because of superhero absences. I wasn't going to lose another one just because a bad guy MIGHT try to kidnap or kill me.
Detective Long's eyes narrowed a little. "You do realize that this guy's MO is to blow up buildings that either you're in, or that have a connection to you. Everywhere you go, you're a hazard to the people around you. What if he follows you to the firehouse?"
I swallowed. In my head, I saw a brief flash of the building where I worked suddenly reduced to a pile of rubble with the crushed bloody remnants of my friends buried inside it.
So, I took a couple weeks off.
Everyone understood. After all, my whole crew had been there on that street corner when I got grabbed. And, I’d gotten the medal of valor before I even made it out of training by stopping a nuclear bombing. No one so much as questioned it. After all the flak I’d caught from Dexter, my old boss, it felt pretty weird to have the higher ups be so completely cool with superhero life related absences.
Donovan pasted himself to my side like a second skin. He even, wonder of wonders, made an uneasy truce with Mark Novak. White Knight spent every moment when he wasn't on duty at the fire house hanging around with me, in full armor with sword at his side and shield on his back. He tried to act like he was just being friendly, asking me questions about dragon stuff, but it was hardly subtle. Jack wasn't any keener than Donovan was on having Novak around so much, but he knew Knight would be handy if it came to a fight. So, he settled for treating the big shiny superhero in our living room as if he didn’t exist. Donovan pretty much did the same. Novak accepted that. Sadly, he seemed pretty used to being treated like a necessary evil.
Brad and Ma just went on about their business. Ma was worried, of course, but worrying was like breathing for her. It was nothing out of the ordinary. And Brad didn't even seem all that worried. I knew the big guy had my back, but he didn’t take any time off from his new job, and he didn’t stop heading out to clubs and music venues for a few beers and some dancing when it suited him.
For my part, I spent the whole two weeks jumping at shadows, wondering when Smoking Mirror would come after me again.
But he didn’t. The one thing we should have learned about the enemy was that he was very patient. He’d already spent most of a year just drawing me out, testing me, finding out what kind of person, hero, fighter, whatever I was.
Absolutely nothing happened for a month. I went back to work. Everyone started to relax. Except Floyd Donovan. He tried not to show it, but while everyone else became more and more certain that the enemy had moved on, or given up, Donovan became more and more certain that I was in serious danger. While everyone else relaxed their vigilance, he looked more and more haggard and worried.
Detective Long thought Donovan had the right idea, but after a couple of weeks, he couldn't continue to justify the expense of a 24/7 police presence on my tail. So, the cops went back to their normal routines. I went back to my normal routine. Novak stopped following me around looking like he was waiting to throw himself in front of a bullet for me. And I stopped dropping into a Krav Maga defensive stance every time I saw someone with a tattoo or someone in a car looking at me, or when someone made a noise behind me that I wasn’t expecting.
Tamara told me she was proud of how my reflexes were improving, so I guess that was good.
Then it was almost Christmas, and I just wanted to feel normal again. So I went shopping. Jack and Tamara went with me. It was fun. We laughed and plotted what we were going to get for people, and acted like we didn’t have a care in the world. Just three besties on a shopping spree. We completely ignored Donovan, the tall, grim bodyguard dogging our steps, looking like he hadn’t slept in a week and would shoot anyone who looked at me funny.
We lucked out on shift timing at the fire house. Novak, Tamara, Jack and I all worked Christmas Eve, a full 24 hour shift, but then we were off on Christmas day and the day after. Everyone came to our house for Christmas. One nice thing about living in a castle, there’s plenty of space for a party. Novak didn’t have anywhere else to go, so when I told him he was invited, he came. Tamara did Christmas morning with her sister’s kids. Her two little nephews were five and seven, so Christmas morning was still magic to them. Then Tam headed to our place for Ma’s awesome Christmas dinner. Brad got the day off. Liberty had some charity appearances to do, but she made it back in time for dinner. I invited Detective Long, and Officer Flynn. Flynn came, but Long begged off to spend the day with his wife and kids. Who knew the guy was married?
I even invited Alrek. He was Agmund’s twin brother, which meant he was my great, great some-odd grand-uncle. And he was in town alone as far as I knew. He had no other family. I would have invited Jupiter Joe, but he’d flown home to his family a week before. It was in his contract, apparently, that he would always be home with his wife and kids at Christmas time.
For Novak, I thought about inviting Fafnir, who was at some Renaissance Faire that had just closed down in Louisiana. But Novak wouldn’t let me. He said he wasn’t ready to face the big red dragon out of legend who just happened to be his dad. He wanted to be the one to tell Fafnir about their relationship, so I hadn't breathed a word. That was between him and Fafnir. Christmas was a really emotionally charged time anyway. I could understand why dealing with his estranged father just then was too much.
I ordered Donovan to sleep. I mean, literally, ordered him. He’d been up watching the monitors all night, waiting expectantly for someone to come to get me, or plant bombs around the house or something. He’d been waiting, expectantly, watchfully for over a month. He looked like death warmed over.
The house filled up with guests, half of them supes, including Knight who followed me like a big shiny guard dog, and Brad who could rip most people’s limbs off, and I wasn’t planning on leaving the house all day. I dragged Donovan out of the security monitoring room to one of the guest rooms, shoved him on the bed and told him he wasn’t allowed to leave the room until dinner at the earliest. That was an order.
“I can’t protect you if I’m asleep,” Donovan said, jaw set stubbornly. His eyes were a vivid shade of pink, nicely set off by the purple smudges under them.
“No, you can’t. So, get some sleep now while I don’t need you.”
“You don’t ever think you need me,” he griped. It was an old complaint, but particularly bitter now.
I thought about Donovan shooting the man who had a .45 pointed at my head. I hated feeling helpless, and needing someone else to protect me. While I’d done the best I could to just move on with my life, I knew as well as he did that Smoking Mirror wasn’t done with me. And I was a normal now. Being human had its advantages, but knowing that someone powerful and cruel genuinely was out to get me made me miss being mostly bulletproof. Donovan shot me the first time we met. I barely noticed. Now, his gun and his trained, vigilant eyes might be the only thing between me and an ugly fate.
“I need you …” I hesitated, just long enough for him to hear what I couldn’t say. “I need you not to fall on your face and snore in the rice pudding.” I winked at him. “Ma worked hard on it.”
He snorted. “Fine.” I think he got what I was trying to tell him. His shoulders relaxed some and he started pulling off his cowboy boots. “Wake me when dinner’s ready.”
One important mission accomplished, I took the secret passage down through the closet to the study, since it was the shortest route. Vlad’s house is kind of a maze, but once you learn your way around, the extra passages are really handy. This meant that I ended up behind a full length 2-way mirror. I reached up to push the hidden latch that opened the mirror, then stopped.
Tamara and Jack slipped into the room holding hands, giggling and looking over their shoulders to make sure no one followed. They talked for just a moment. I couldn't hear them through the thick glass. Tamara did most of the talking. I’d never seen her so excited, bouncing on her toes and grinning like a maniac.
Jack smiled back at her, wider and wider as she talked. He laughed and hugged her, picking her up off her feet and swinging her around.
He’d never done that with me. I’m too tall, but Tamara was just the right height for him. She was just right for him in so many ways.
As I watched, I felt a weird mix of keening pain and joy. I loved them both. They looked so happy together. Tears trailed down my cheeks without me even noticing at first. If this was what was best for them, then I knew what I had to do.
I can’t write anymore right now. I think this might be helping, though. I’ll write more later.